The government has moved ahead with a Rf50 million student loan programme in an attempt to support a larger number of local people in further education, replacing the “pocket money” grant scheme that previously supplied limited study funding free of charge.
The funding switch has raised concerns among some students and opposition figures, who claim that not enough is being done to support and prepare young people for the challenges of a more diverse Maldives job market.
Aminath Ali, Deputy Minister of Human Resources, Youth and Sports, told Minivan News that 340 students currently studying in higher or further education institutions in the Maldives were now able to claim an equal share of the government supplied funding, which was expected to be paid back once courses were over.
“Out of 367 existing students who applied for the loans, 27 were rejected as they were not currently studying in the Maldives,” she said.
The switch from the previous “pocket money” system has not been without controversy, with some local students demonstrating outside the President’s Office back in March in order to try and reinstate charge-free grants for those in higher education.
Student protesters claimed at the time that some of their peers appeared to still be getting the pocket money grant, while others were struggling to afford or obtain books required for their studies in light of the student loan switch.
A spokesperson for the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) this week also criticised the government’s implementation of the student loan system, as well as its overall commitments to education in the country, claiming that both the funding and the range of courses currently on offer were “not sufficient” for their own needs – or those of the job market that will one day employ them.
Aminath Ali said she accepted that a number of students had become concerned about the change towards providing loans instead of the free grants previously offered. However, the minister claimed the new system was in place to try to ensure that both the country and citizens could afford further education on a more sustainable basis in the long-term.
“Under the current budget we cannot provide free learning and funding for students at higher education institutions. The [student loans] are similar to mechanisms in place in countries all over the world,” she said. “Say a student has a total loan amount of Rf24,000 over their studies, they will have to pay back this amount and a five percent administration charge to cover the role of their bank over an agreed period of time.”
According to Ali, once a student had completed their studies, they are then given six months to find a job before having to begin paying back the funding.
The deputy human resources minister claimed that sufficient mechanisms were in place to allow student to pay back their loans to the government over a maximum of ten years depending on their revenue. Ali added that in consultations with the Employment Ministry, she was confident that graduates would be able find jobs within this six month period that offer long-term career prospects for those willing to work.
The loan system is also said to be backed by 100 percent scholarship programmes for students studying abroad in areas such as medical sciences and technology, according to the ministry. Ali claimed that 180 scholarships, based on educational performance, had been offered between January and May of this year.
Separate funding had also been put aside by the Ministry of Human Resources for students to apply for when entering into further education during the present academic year.
The Ministry of Education claimed that the move towards student loans reflected the need for funding at a wider number of institutions in the country that now offer higher education courses to students across different fields of expertise.
DRP Spokesperson Ibrahim ‘Mavota’ Shareef said that while the opposition party welcomed measures to financially support students in higher education, he believed the new loan system had failed to take into account hardships faced by the young, particularly those coming from islands to Male’ to live.
According to Shareef, while previous systems had provided a pocket money allowance and even some forms of salary to fund study from the government’s purse, he claimed the new loans were insufficient to cover the expenses of moving to Male’.
“From the complaints we have received from students, [the student loans] are not a popular initiative. Government must reconsider this system, changes are expected to be for the better,” he said. “If the government was replacing [student funding] with a better system, it would be welcomed.”
When addressing the government’s own need to reduce national spending and its own budget deficits amidst commitments to organisations such as the International Monetary fund (IMF), Shareef said that the government would have been better served by “gradually” phasing out the “pocket money” system as opposed to replacing it completely.
“In a country, no matter how rich it is, education is not an area where funding should be cut,” he said.
In addition to concerns over the student loan system, Shareef claimed that he also believed that the current higher education curriculum was out of synch with the demands of the modern Maldives job market.
“The whole education system does not match up with the job openings currently being offered,” he claimed. “Until the 1980’s, we had limited [job] openings available , so the purpose of education and training was to get people ready for working the civil service,” he said.
With the advent and growth of the country’s the tourist industry along with the emergence of regional and multinational businesses moving into the Maldivian economy, Shareef claimed that the education system had failed to move with the times in making people ready for this changing workplace.
“There are not enough professionals available that are trained to work in management positions within the tourism, fisheries and even construction industries. Education is simply not meeting these requirements,” he said